The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
Opening with NASA’s 1977 launch of Voyager and proceeding to the stars, Wim Wenders has made a film celebrating the American blues he loves. It is a hybrid, mixing reenactments and documentary, punctuated by reinterpretations of blues songs by contemporary rock artists. It is one of the seven entries of The Blues, a PBS television series executive-produced by Martin Scorsese.
From the heavens, the film descends to Earth in the 1920s, to Blind Willie Johnson, one of the film’s principal subjects. The other two are Skip James, from the 1930s, and J. B. Lenoir, from the 1960s. Johnson was blinded at seven when his stepmother threw lye into his face. Black-and-white reconstructions involving Johnson and James in the 1920s and 1930s were shot using an old, hand-cranked 35mm. camera synchronized to authentic tracks of the men singing. The visual and emotional effect transports us back in time and, metaphorically, to the stars. With the help of James’s haunting sound, Wenders achieves a trenchant (if fleeting) evocation of the Great Depression.
The frailty of human lives: following recording sessions in early 1931, James “never saw a red cent” from his profit percentage. The market for blues recordings collapsed, and the company for which he recorded went bankrupt. James became a Baptist minister. Wrapped up in his new life, James did not know that his few released records had become legendary. He reemerged in the 1960s, playing not to the front row but to “the great beyond.”
An interview of a Swedish couple who befriended Lenoir follows. The Swedish woman disputes the notion that gospel and the blues are mutually exclusive kinds of music. Blues musicians like Lenoir, she says, “create spirit.”
Lenoir sang about his struggles as a black man in the inhospitable South and died impoverished.
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